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Best of the CRANDIC: CommUnity CEO Sarah Nelson on how the 988 lifeline ‘changed everything’



Sarah Nelson, CommUnity CEO, in November 2022. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Sarah Nelson is a graduate of Iowa City West High and the University of Iowa. She led Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids before taking over as CommUnity Crisis Services’ CEO in 2021, and can now say she’s overseen the only two National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) centers in the state.

At CommUnity — winner of Best Nonprofit Organization and Best Nonprofit Director in the 2022 Best of the CRANDIC survey — Nelson has focused on meeting an unprecedented need for food assistance in Johnson County, ensuring staff are supported and launching Iowa’s 988 helpline.

There are food pantries in eastern Iowa, and there are crisis lifelines. But CommUnity is both of those things, and more. How do you balance these services?

We know that people need their basic needs met if we’re going to help stabilize their mental health or address a mental health crisis, so being able to have those services under the umbrella of one organization works really well for clients and for meeting people’s needs.

I am constantly balancing because they are very different programs in terms of how they’re funded and how they operate. For example, our food bank and financial support and work enabling programs, almost 93 percent of the funding comes from individual donations, which means without local community support, those programs could not serve our community at the level that they do.

Boxes of food at the CommUnity food bank on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

How has the monitoring of the 988 lifeline changed the way you operate your crisis services?

It’s changed everything. I mean, it truly has. A year and a half ago we barely had any funding for the crisis health line program, and then we were awarded the national backup contract as well as the state contract. It became a $7 million program, which doubled our entire agency budget. So we went from a staff of 80 to a staff of 200 in less than six months.

When you’re doing a service that is is dealing with people with high-acuity issues like being suicidal, quality obviously needs to be a huge focus — not just the number of chats and texts and calls that we answer, but how effective we’re able to be. My staff has done an amazing job at quality assurance. We received significant oversight from NSPL to monitor quality and consistently receive the highest quality ratings in the entire national network … The second month after the 988 launch, our quality rating was higher than it was before, which was just astounding to me.

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Is there anything else you want the community to know?

I always like to say that regardless of the current situation people are in, there’s hope. And that’s something that we really try to provide, that support and that hope, whether that’s through financial support, mobile crisis or 988, and we want people to reach out if they are struggling in any of those areas of their life.

CommUnity’s Top 10 Donation Needs

1. Financial donations
2. Hygiene products
3. Toilet paper
4. Canned meat
5. Baby diapers and wipes
6. Baby formula
7. Rice and pasta
8. Hearty soups and stews
9. Peanut butter
10. Laundry detergent


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